New Fiction Uncovered column: three Welsh novels in translation

For my third Fiction Uncovered guest column, I wanted to write about fiction in translation. I’ve reviewed three novels translated from Welsh, each of which won the Wales Book of the Year award:

  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies)
  • The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (translated by Lloyd Jones)
  • Faith, Hope & Love by Llwyd Owen (translated by the author)

I didn’t really have a greater rationale for choosing those specific books, but actually I think they fit together quite well as a set of novels that deal with the effect of place on character. And they’re all worth reading in their own right.

You can read my new column here, and find links to the previous ones here.

“The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings”

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

Ivo Stourton, The Happier Dead (2014): Strange Horizons review

StourtonThis week, Strange Horizons published my review of Ivo Stourton’s new novel The Happier Dead. The book is framed as a murder mystery set in a near future where rejuvenation treatment is available to those who can afford it, and riot is fomenting among those who can’t. To go alongside the mystery, Stourton is also interested in exploring the ramifications of the rejuvenation treatment (and the mindset that created it) for his future society. In the end, this doesn’t quite all come together, but The Happier Dead does have its moments.

Click here to read my review in full.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Giveaway winner and a new Juli Zeh review

A short post to round up a couple of recent bits and pieces. First of all, congratulations to Gareth Beniston who won my Yoko Ogawa giveaway.

DecompressionSecond, there’s a new issue of Shiny New Books online, in which I have a couple of reviews. Brand new is a review of Juli Zeh’s intriguing Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen), which centres on a love triangle involving a diving instructor and his latest client, and becomes a game of control where you can’t quite be sure who to believe. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find an expanded version of my original blog post on All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which recently picked up three awards within the space of eight days, and with very good reason.

We Love This Book reviews: David Safier and Cristina Henríquez

Here are a couple of reviews I’ve had published recently at We Love This Book:

David Safier, Apocalypse Next Tuesday (2008)
Translated from the German by Hilary Parnfors (2014)

SafierThe end of the world may come before Marie Woodward finds true love – and it’s not that far off.

Marie is thirty-five when she pulls out of marrying Sven at the last minute, realising that she doesn’t love him enough for it to last a lifetime. So she moves back into her childhood home with nothing much to do but feel sorry for herself. At the same time, her father is busy hooking up with a mail-order bride and her sister Kata is recovering from a brain tumour – then Marie’s bedroom ceiling caves in. Enter a handsome carpenter named Joshua who Marie quickly falls for and who just happens to be Jesus come to Earth. Meanwhile, Satan (disguised as George Clooney) has an apocalypse to bring about, and is on the lookout for some horsemen…

Apocalypse Next Tuesday is good fun read – David Safier gets plenty of comic mileage from the incongruity of putting Jesus into the world of contemporary dating. Hilary Parnfors’ translation from the German is nicely breezy, and I especially liked the touch of including comic strips ‘drawn’ by Kata. But Safier’s novel also has a serious heart, as Marie has to think about what she really wants from life and what it really means to give herself to someone. In terms of the plot, perhaps the decisive movement towards the apocalypse comes a little too late to keep the novel balanced. Still, Apocalypse Next Tuesday is well worth a look if you’re in the mood for a romp.

(The original review is here. The  book is published in the UK by Hesperus Press.)

Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)

HenriquezThe Rivera family cross the border from Mexico to make a new life in the US – but it’s not quite the life they had hoped for.

Alma and Arturo Rivera make the move because their teenage daughter, Maribel, sustained brain damage in an accident; they’re hoping that the specialist education available in the US will help her. But there are many obstacles to overcome: the Riveras speak little English; their money won’t go very far; for all his willingness to work, Arturo has to take a job picking mushrooms. But they’re determined to make this work, for Maribel.

Someone else with his eye on Maribel (though for different reasons) is Mayor Toro, the son of an established neighbouring family from Panama. The main narration of the novel alternates between Mayor and Alma, with their stories echoing each other in various ways: the Riveras are viewed with suspicion, as are Mayor’s motives for spending time with Maribel. Mayor’s tribulations at school show that difficulties like the Riveras’ don’t necessarily end once you’ve become a naturalised citizen.

Peppering Cristina Henríquez’s novel are individual chapters narrated by immigrant characters from different parts of Central and South America, each with as much of a story to tell as the Riveras, though we catch only a glimpse of them. The end of the Riveras’ tale loses a little of the subtlety that’s gone before it; but the various narrators of The Book of Unknown Americans remind us how many voices there are that may go unheard.

(The original review is here. The book is published in the UK by Canongate, and in the US by Knopf.)

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.

***

LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.

***

Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.